The moment when we first see Leonardo DiCaprio's face as the title character in Baz Luhrmann's lavish adaptation of The Great Gatsby is perhaps the biggest "movie star" moment of DiCaprio's career.
With fireworks popping off in the night sky behind him, he turns and raises his glass to the camera in a way that exudes high-octane, perhaps nuclear, star charisma. The moment comes off as if Luhrmann is saying "Oh yeah, bitches ... I've got Leo as Gatsby, so every other director piloting every other movie currently playing in this multiplex can SUCK IT!"
If you are a Luhrmann fan, and you appreciated his overstylized vision in past works like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (Let's just forget Australia ever happened, shall we?), then you are bound to find much to like in his Gatsby. It's full of eye-popping visuals, terrific soundtrack stunts (loved hearing Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey while watching a picture set in the Roaring '20s) and lush costumes.
More important than any of the visual and audio treats is the fact that DiCaprio gives us cinema's first "great" Gatsby (Robert Redford played Gatsby once, and I am falling asleep typing about it). Luhrmann slows the pace and lowers the volume for many a dramatic moment, and DiCaprio seizes these moments with substantial authority.
His Gatsby is an obsessed heartbreaker, relentlessly pursuing the love of the married Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a woman he met five years earlier, before going off to war. A lesser actor could make Gatsby come off as a true nutball/psycho, but DiCaprio gives us somebody who garners sympathy and makes complete sense in his own deranged, sad way. His Gatsby is the sweetest stalker you will see on screen this year.
It's great to see DiCaprio sharing the screen with longtime friend Tobey Maguire, who is equally good as Nick Carraway. Carraway narrates the film as he writes a novel within the confines of a sanitarium. For me, knowing about their real-life friendship enhanced scenes that the two shared together. Their camaraderie feels quite natural.
Maguire actually commands the most screen time in the movie, and that's a good thing. Before he became Spider-Man, he was one of Hollywood's more reliable dramatic actors in films like The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys. He's the perfect choice for Carraway, a man who is at once intelligent, artistic and socially naïve. Maguire always does a fine job when required to look cute and confused.
One of the film's greatest surprises is the amount of depth Joel Edgerton brings to the role of Tom Buchanan, Daisy's lug of a husband. Edgerton commands one of the film's greatest scenes: a confrontation with Gatsby about Daisy in a New York City hotel over a block of ice and some whiskey. Edgerton makes this more than just a standard showdown between two men over a woman. He turns it into a bona fide romantic apocalypse.
As the object of multiple affections, Mulligan gives Daisy bountiful charms to go with those fatal vacuous tendencies. There are times where Gatsby's pursuit is quite understandable based on how luminescent Mulligan looks in the role. Yet Mulligan, an actress of considerable talent, gives Daisy something far more complex below the surface. As anybody who has read the novel knows going in, Daisy is doomed to a dimmed emotional life, yet Mulligan has you always rooting for her to wise up.
Luhrmann made the daring choice to shoot the movie in 3-D, and this stands as one of the great uses of the medium. I didn't think that a film set in 1920s New York would benefit from 3-D, but Luhrmann proved me wrong. Indeed, streaming confetti, orchids, popping champagne and DiCaprio's face all get wonderful enhancement in 3-D. It adds a major element of fun to the film.
Some might decry Luhrmann's crazy music choices, mixing modern music with Cole Porter standards. This is just something he always does, and he does it well. When Lana Del Rey comes up over a deeply moving romantic moment, it doesn't feel like a stunt. It feels completely appropriate (I kind of hate her music, but it works really well in the film). Music is indeed timeless when it comes to Luhrmann movies and, to some extent, Tarantino.
The film was delayed from awards season last December for reasons I'm not sure of. I thought it was strange to put an adaptation of a literary classic in the middle of summer movie season, but after seeing it, that move made perfect sense. It's a heady movie, but it's also the sort of feast for the eyes we want to see this time of year. And, let's face it, if the movie is good and it has DiCaprio in it, then that usually means big box office.
I imagine this will be another great DiCaprio performance that won't get noticed come Oscar time. How this guy doesn't have an Oscar yet is beyond me. He has Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street coming out later this year, so maybe that will put him in play.
As for that green dock light Gatsby gazes upon through the night fog—across the bay, where Daisy lives—it amounts to one haunting image that will stick with you. Driving home from the theater after The Great Gatsby, green traffic lights were making me weepy.